Techno Panics From Forty Years Ago… Narrated By Orson Welles

from the sound-familiar dept

Adam Thierer points us to this wonderful BrainPickings blog post about how, in 1972, a little-known documentary was made, based on Alvin Toffler’s famous and massively influential techno-panic book Future Shock, which famously warned about the dangers of technological progress. Apparently, the entire documentary has been put up on YouTube, so you can watch it below. It’s narrated by Orson Welles, but what’s most amusing is how many of the concerns voiced in the documentary about the evils of technology are the same “warnings” that we hear today, with the same absence of evidence that support the position. I particularly like the dramatic scary music that fills much of the entire film.

The lesson from all this, as pointed out in BrainPickings, is that: “Societies have always feared new technology but ultimately adapted to it. Or, better yet, adapted it to their needs.” It would be nice, if just once, we didn’t have to go through that fear process, but it seems like that’s wishful thinking.

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Comments on “Techno Panics From Forty Years Ago… Narrated By Orson Welles”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

I just finished part one and yeah, so far, this video is way over the top.

However I wouldn’t brush off the whole idea of future shock so quickly. I think that people who use it as a call for slowing progress or as a general reason to fear technology are simply reacting to it wrongly – the idea has a certain gravity.

There’s a lot of talk, even here on Techdirt, about the ways people are incorporating technology into their lives and how society needs to adapt to that – whether its letting kids have cellphones in schools or giving up on preserving the scarcity of information. In that I completely agree – but it’s also valid to consider the effects this has on society and, dare I say, each new generation’s fundamental thought processes.

Broad trends like impermanence, more-information-faster, and computers aiding our thought processes all interact with our human nature in unexpected ways – and though many of these observations seem stale, that’s at least partially because the same things have been happening for a long time, and accelerating steadily. The implications are difficult to study and impossible to pin down, but truly fascinating to consider.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the drama and the fearmongering are terrible. I firmly believe progress and innovation are human society’s greatest strengths and also just as necessary to our survival now as it has always been. I also am excited about what people will achieve as we continue to use technology to exceed our natural capacity. But studying the impact of all this on our psychology, both in the positive and the negative, is equally important.

Anonymous Coward says:

I always, always found those predictions of technological doom to be entertaining and good for story plots, for that they are awesome for that.

The Borg is a great plot, Skynet, the various films from the 50’s and 60’s about isolated island with terrible experiments getting out of control, one that I remember seeing but can’t remember the name is one of some creatures that were produced and they sucked the bones out of you, I remember being scared to death by that movie LoL

Yogi says:

What fear mongering?

I don’t recall getting that impression at all from “Future Shock”.

Toffler just tried to describe how the technological environment was changing and going to change, and how people are reacting to it. Most of what he wrote in “Future Shock” and especially in “The Third Wave” holds very true even today.

And by the way – the reaction of the content industries to the technological changes in their business environment are accurately described in “Future Shock”, and the changes themselves accurately predicted in “The Third Wave”.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: What fear mongering?

It’s fear mongering when some people use it as a call to slow down progress, or try to incite people to fear all new technology.

But simply analyzing the effects of rapid development on society is not fearmongering in itself.

That being said, I haven’t read the book – this movie is definitely fearmongering, but from what Yogi says I’m not so sure the original work is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 What fear mongering?

Even if you look at the MSM today it’s obvious that they clearly have a vendetta against Facebook, Google, and other MSM competitors. They have gotten much too used to their govt imposed monopoly rents and they simply can’t take the competition.

I have much more respect for these online media/entertainment sources, they must compete in a much freer market than the MSM, which benefits from bad laws in their favor.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 What fear mongering?

I think at least part of the media’s love of online scare stories isn’t so much personal as it is indicative of the amount of techno-panic that exists in society. The “damn kids and their phones and their facebook” mentality is so prevalent (mostly among people who, in reality, are just resentful that the world isn’t exactly the same as when they came into it) that any story condemning all these newfangled gadgets is an instant hit.

Whenever I see stories about sexting or kids getting dumber or any of that stuff, I feel like they only exist to give the get-off-my-lawn crowd more ammunition at the dinner table.

Anonymous Coward says:

In modern terms (thanks to whoever posted this in other places) the movie is FUD. In reality, it isn’t any different from what is written daily on TD, albeit from the opposite side.

When you look at anything, you can find the negative in it. That movie is only really a collection of the negative aspects of certain types of advances, and then taking those aspects and applying them willy-nilly to other things. Any movie that can make moving house sound like a horrible, scary, terrible thing to do gets points for blowing as much smoke as possible.

Quite simply, there are tin foil hatters in every generation. In the 60s, they made movies. In current times they open blogs, like TD. Some of them write horrible one sided cartoon, like Nina Paley does.

At the time, the message may have found a receptive audience. 40 years later, we can see past the FUD and separate out the facts and the fiction. I suspect a 40 year lookback on TD will show just how transient many of the ideas here were as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What we need is much more fear against bad laws that favor special interest groups. A lack of such fear is what resulted in 95+ year copy protection terms (resulting in so much work lost to history and a huge detriment to our culture as a result), many absolutely ridiculous patents, and the corporate control of most information distribution channels (ie: cableco infrastructure and public airwave use) and free speech outside the Internet.

Joe Smith says:

What shock?

My high school principal gave me a copy of Future Shock in 1972. I read it and thought it was garbage.

The problem with progress is that it is too slow, not too fast. The technical progress, in terms of practical effects on peoples lives, in the intervening 40 or so years is NOTHING compared to the changes from 1860 to 1900 or 1880 to 1920 or 1900 to 1940 or 1930 to 1970.

The transistor was invented in 1950, the integrated circuit in 1960 and the microprocessor in 1970. Where are the new inventions that even come close to those? And they are minor in significance compared to, say, Tesla’s alternating current electric engine. Each major advance is less important than the one that came before it. Progress is asymptotic, not exponential. We think current progress is rapid only because we take for granted what has come before.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: What shock?

You have a good point, but you also have to consider that modern progress is in many ways about social innovation more than physical invention. Social networking, for example, is a massively significant innovation that has had an effect on how the entire world communicates. YouTube has turned video into something it never was before, and in a way increased the amount of things everyone in the world will “see” in their lifetime by orders of magnitude. Cellphones and then smartphones have HUGELY altered the way we live our lives. iPods and filesharing have revolutionized the world of music forever. Blogging has fundamentally changed the institution of journalism for the first time in over a century.

If one aspect of progress slows, another one always accelerates.

Ed C. says:

Re: What shock?

You’re looking at it backwards. It’s like comparing the base of a tree to its limbs and deciding that because the base is bigger, the rest of the tree isn’t growing as fast. There were a lot of other discoveries that came out at the same time as the ones you mentioned that no one really cares about now because they really didn’t grow. The great discoveries are the ones that grew into something greater, and are only important *because* of the discoveries that came from them.

Joer Smith says:

Re: Re: What shock?

We knew within a five years of their respective invention that transistors, integrated circuits and microprocessors would be important.

Where are the inventions of the last 40 years that have a similar prospect?

The Internet is less significant than the telegraph, with the telephone falling somewhere in between the two. Most of Facebook is garbage, written by children.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: What shock?

The internet, GPS, cell phones, innumerable medical advances, scientifice instruments such as the LHC and the Hubble telescope, antilock brakes, the space shuttle, in short there are plenty. It sounds like you’re taking things for granted because you’re used to them. Even if you still think none of those things is as big a deal, does it really matter if change happens in a fewer larger steps, or in millions of smaller steps? Do you really think things are advancing and changing more slowly now than they were in 1860?

New Mexico Mark says:

What does this film have to do with the book?

As others have pointed out, the book “Future Shock” little resembles this unintentionally funny film. (On a side note, this movie and “Reefer Madness” should be revived as a double feature.)

IIRC, Toffler’s work was not some Luddite “technology is bad” book, but more of a cautionary work about possible pitfalls from reliance on technology as a substitute for personal and business “best practices”.

One thing that stuck with me — and something that has been valuable to me in my career, is his comparison of high-tech vs. high-touch. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen organizations rush to implement a technological “solution” with no other justification than “progress” or poorly understood promises of cost reduction. Often those technological solutions have mostly served to alienate their customers and drain their budgets.

If you have ever sworn off a company because of their voice jail system, convoluted web “support” sites, no means of direct contact, etc., then you have illustrated his point. If a positive interaction (even very brief) by phone, online chat, or in person can increase customer satisfaction and loyalty, then an automated solution that prevents actual customer contact (high touch) might not be progress at all.

I think Toffler would have appreciated the meme:
1. Step 1
2. Step 2
3. …
4. Profit!

It’s the very type of thinking (when applied to technology solutions) that he warned against.

wafflesnfalafel says:


New Mexico Mark it right on the money – it’s the “fear” or apprehension of terrible new high tech “solutions” that drive the quality of innovation. And frankly, there are always going to be some folks on the back end of the technology curve – we need them to pick up the pieces if and when something gets out of hand. My ‘back woods’ relatives with no cable and a woodstove would completely agree with this vid, but darn if they aren’t awfully comfy when the power goes out, or there is 2 ft of snow or whatever. Another perfect example is Vista – “progress” for the sake of progress with the final product being MUCH worse than what it replaced.

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